Sam Harris, a graduate of St. George's School in Vancouver, had his "aha moment" at the end of Grade 11.
The avid rower had just finished a race with his school team after a demanding year in the water. The group ended up capturing two national titles – one of which was the first in the school's history.
"I remember getting off the boat and standing at the medal podium and just being like, 'Oh yeah. This is me. This is what I like doing,'" he recalls.
The Kelowna, B.C., native most recently competed with the multiple-gold-medal-winning British Columbia team at the Canada Summer Games in Quebec last August. And while Mr. Harris first jumped into the sport about a year before entering St. George's in Grade 11, it was in that unforgettable moment with his school team where the passion really seemed to click.
"At that point, I realized I definitely wanted to continue rowing," he says, three years after the memorable regatta. "There are few things more satisfying than putting in months of preparation and seeing results."
Mr. Harris's epiphany almost didn't happen. He got into the school with the help of its financial assistance program.
Less than 12 months before he stepped onto that podium, Mr. Harris was awarded a full boarding scholarship to St. George's, an all-boys school of about 1,000 students. And he's certain he wouldn't be where he is now without it.
"Truth be told, my parents couldn't afford – can't afford – to send me to a school like that," he says. "It's very expensive."
Tuition and board at St. George's this year for students in grades 8 to 12 starts at $42,000 for B.C. residents. It's higher for out-of-province and international students.
Gordon Allan, director of admissions at St. George's, recognizes that private-school tuition can feel like an insurmountable burden for many parents – and can prevent otherwise stellar students from joining their community.
His school launched a full boarding scholarship in 2005, when St. George's celebrated its 75th anniversary.
"Being able to make the school as accessible as possible to everyone was the driving motivation for this, while obviously aspiring to have a very eclectic and diverse group of students at the school," he says of the decision to launch the full boarding scholarship in 2005, when St. George's celebrated its 75th anniversary. The scholarship covers full tuition and boarding for one boy in grades 9, 10 or 11, and can be renewed to last for the student's entire time at the school.
Mr. Harris benefited from the scholarship for two years, until his graduation in the summer of 2011.
"It just felt like a natural fit," says Mr. Harris, who now attends Columbia University in New York for neuroscience and is a member of its heavyweight rowing team. "I hadn't even heard of Columbia before I went to St. George's, so getting that kind of appreciation for what's out there, the depth of what I could experience or achieve, it definitely pushed me to go for more."
St. George's, like many independent schools, funds most of its financial aid programs with the help of interest collected from the school's endowment fund, which rests at just less than $14-million. According to Mr. Allan, St. George's is able to offer a total of about $800,000 in financial assistance to students across the school every year.
"In an ideal world, we want to grow our endowment so it's all about the student, [and] not about the family's income level," he adds.
Reflecting socio-economic diversity in the student body is a key focus for private schools, according to Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), a national organization providing research, accreditation and professional development support for independent schools across the country.
"I think that's one of the stereotypes of an independent school – that it's only for the elite. And sometimes people certainly feel sticker shock around the posted tuition," says Ms. Kee, whose own son and daughter each rely on financial assistance to support their enrolment at two independent schools in Southern Ontario. "It's absolutely worthwhile for people to not be fearful or embarrassed to phone schools and inquire about their scholarships and bursaries."
Not all independent schools are able to offer full scholarships, but those that do are attracting greater interest from prospective families in recent years. Branksome Hall, an all-girls school in central Toronto, awarded its new Harold A. Kopas Family Scholarship just this year, which will pay for an incoming Grade 9 student's full four years of high school tuition.
"The number of applications has definitely increased over the last four years that I've been in the admissions department," says Kimberly Carter, director of admissions at Branksome Hall. The school has also previously offered another full-tuition opportunity by way of its Hallward Scholarship, and is campaigning to raise $3-million to offer further financial support for students.
Later this year, CAIS will be launching a research project on best practices for managing money at private schools, which will include investigating how financial aid is disbursed fairly and transparently.
"Our schools excel at offering a lot of opportunities and you want to be able to give those opportunities to kids who really deserve them, regardless of income," Ms. Kee says.
Mr. Harris, who is looking forward to continuing both his rowing career and his academic pursuits (he plans to attend medical school, following his stint at Columbia) couldn't imagine spending his last two years of high school anywhere other than St. George's, and is grateful for the generous opportunity.
Aid adds up
In 2011-12, more than 6,700 private school students received financial aid in Canada, totalling $53.1-million.
The average amount of financial assistance awarded to individual students was $9,318 in 2011-12, up from $8,771 in the previous academic year.
Collectively, independent schools are increasing their overall amount of financial aid by an estimated 8 per cent every year.
Source: Canadian Accredited Independent Schools